The New Meets the Old
For a while I’ve been afraid to let the new lyrical essay writer meet the old, active-storytelling prose writer in me. That 150 pages I wrote during my first year of the MFA that once looked like a heaping pile of gems, is now stale breadcrumbs and that is fine with me. But alas – there were stories to be salvaged, I just didn’t know how to retrieve them. I was afraid if the new lyrical essay writer met the old writer, that it might get contaminated.
Today, I might have found a way in. A blending of the old, strong, heart-solid ideas finding a voice through the new medium (for me) of the lyrical essay. Oh friends, we shall see. But after 12 days of no writing, look here! Some new words! And old muse, a new voice. Here goes:
The Kindgom of Islandia
Life is easy; I am eight. There are friends forever and secret hiding places, there are pets and neighborhood picnics. It is the year of my first earthquake, the year of the tree fort, the year of wanting to be Mary Lou Retton. I have outgrown Annie, outgrown ponies, and started to tap dance.
Jennie is my best friend and she is one grade above me in school but eons ahead of me in growth because she has older sisters and I do not. Jennie knows all kinds of things because of this. She knows how to kiss boys, which she shows me by Frenching her own hand, pointer finger curled into the thumb just so to imitate the puffy flesh of lips. I tell her I think Frenching is gross but she laughs like her older sisters and says, “You like it, you just don’t know yet.” Jennie also knows about bras and periods, even though she doesn’t have either. She has triangle-starts for breasts and isn’t ready for A-cup yet but will be next year, next year, her mother says.
Jennie comes from the old neighborhood and already I understand she is the sister my parents cannot make. They tried twice, three times, but something wouldn’t hold. Mom stayed at home for a while; didn’t go to work. I tell Mom that Jennie and I are blood sisters and that is good enough for me. It happened one day when Jennie showed me her hiding place behind the shed in her backyard. We each pricked our fingertips with a sewing needle, drawing blood. We said a chant, smudged our fingers together real tight, and that was that.
Back when we lived close, so close you could play catch from my yard over to hers, we weren’t allowed to cross Huber Street alone. Jennie’s big sisters walked her across the street to my house after school. I waited for her like a tied puppy, my outside-girl dirty toes pumping against the edge of the white fog line on the road. When her sisters turned around to walk back across the street, swaying their hips genetically and adjusting their bra straps, I wondered why sometimes they wanted to play with Jennie and me in our make believe, and why other times they said they had to crimp their hair. I shivered from the sheer magic of them and the way the world seemed to stretch out before their very footsteps, holding its breath to see which way they were going to turn.
Now, when Jennie comes over to play there is always the question of which greatest idea to try first. Jennie has the greatest idea to build a fort under the stairs and make believe we are Swiss Family Robinson. I have the greatest idea to play with the pet guinea pig, Munchkin, even though he is sick. Jennie has the greatest idea to make a list of boys we like and boys we don’t like. I have the greatest idea to pick marionberries and eat them all to our selves, none for her sisters who we sometimes hate and sometimes want to be.
Jennie says yes, yes we can play with Munchkin and we are going to pretend to train him for the Islandia Olympics. That makes me Queen of Islandia, all the animals at my command. She sets up soccer cones in the hallway for an obstacle course, blocking off one end with a row of books and another end with a pile of pillows. Our fortress sealed, the Olympics begin.
“Munchkin, sit!” I say. The longhaired, albino animal whinnies and shakes. “On your mark!”
His eyes throb red and unblinking behind two swaths of clean hair, the only hair I am not afraid to groom since the vet said Munchkin has cancer. He refuses to move.
“False start!” I say, wrapping my hands around his pale body, fingertips brushing the edge of a few small scabs on his underbelly. I can feel a tiny heart fluttering through his thin skin as I reposition him at the starting line.
We learn quickly that to get him to respond at all, Munchkin must be startled into movement. I shout commands loudly to keep him alert, my calls quick and stern as a whip resounding across our imaginary kingdom of Islandia. Jennie drops to all fours, knees burning pink from the friction of her hurried scuffle across the carpet. She rears back like a bull, then charges behind Munchkin, forcing him to move faster. Between commands we laugh at ourselves and then at Munchkin, bobbing our chins and up down and pushing air through our teeth, the perfect imitation of his whinnying.
By the seventh run Munchkin struggles to breathe. We pretend he has just beaten his record time and needs to rest. I pick him up, holding the back of his head to my mouth like a boxing coach stationed behind a champion fighter just before the final round. I want to tell him to give it all he’s got, that this is it, that he’s never run better, but his muscles slacken in my hands and his head tips forward. His body settles into my palms as limp as a tissue.
“Oh no,” I say.
“We killed him,” Jennie says, but I say no, no, that I will make believe him back alive and that if he will only wake up I’ll let him be King, but it doesn’t work and already I can feel something bigger than all of Islandia ripping into me.
Jennie goes upstairs to call her mother, leaving me alone in the obstacle course. I caress Munchkin’s dirty-white hair and groom it just so across his face. I flip him onto his back, finally unafraid to look at the rest of his body. The scabs are red and thin, his skin still warm against my clammy hands. His mouth slips open a few millimeters, teeth barred to the world in deflated defense.
Where before I imagined screaming crowds of onlookers, fans in the Islandia Olympics, now there is heavy, underwater silence. I put Munchkin back in his cage, his body like a flattened mat without the support of his four legs. My head hurts and I think how sweet those marionberries would have tasted, their purple sugar bleeding into my mouth.